Job in Inverness was first step on road to best-selling book

JOURNALIST Paul Cowan has topped the best-seller charts in Canada with the story of how the Scots shaped the history of the world's second largest nation.

He was well placed to write "How The Scots Created Canada", having made the trans-Atlantic migration himself, but his writing career began thousands of miles away from the Canadian prairies, here in the Highlands.

"I went to the Glasgow Herald as an office boy for a year, got into Napier College to study journalism and then more or less went straight to the Inverness Courier," Paul explained during a visit to Scotland to see his family in Bathgate.

Evelyn Barron, the Courier's famed editor and owner, offered Paul the job on condition he found somewhere to live. But, with a shortage of available accommodation, Paul started his Courier career living in a greenhouse. Fortunately the job was worth putting up with the unconventional lodgings.

"The Courier was a great place to be a young reporter in the early '80s," he said.

"The national newspapers all had offices in Inverness so there were a lot of real crack guys and girls working there. If you were going to work for a weekly newspaper, the Inverness Courier would be the one because you were up against so many top performers.

"One guy I was at college with went to the Evening News in Edinburgh and he was still writing about raffles when I was getting to write up murders and explosions and collapsed rail bridges."

After learning his trade, Paul spent a couple of years in Shetland before he was invited back to Inverness by new Courier owner Stuart Lindsay.

"That was almost more exciting because the paper was being re-launched, but I only stayed a year," he said.

Paul's next move was to the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle and it was after this that he made his first acquaintance with Canada although he very nearly went in a completely different direction.

"When I left the Evening Chronicle, I decided to go on an extended trip," Paul said.

"I listed the things in the world I wanted to see. There were two things in Australia and three in Canada, so I went to Canada.

"When I was playing football in Vancouver, there was this big guy on the other side who made this dirty tackle on me so I hit him with my elbow. At the end of the game, he came striding across and I thought he was going to deck me. Instead he says: 'Do you ever drink in the Phoenix Bar in Inverness?'"

Returning to Scotland and a job with the Oban Times led to Paul taking up the post of editor of the Campbeltown Courier. He stayed until he had amassed enough emigration points for Canada, having already made some tentative explorations regarding a job.

During his Canadian trip, Paul had popped in to see an editor on the Edmonton Sun. What started as a potential job interview ended up in a bar with a promise that Paul should get in touch if his migration status changed.

So having obtained the necessary points to become a Canadian worker, Paul got back in touch with the Alberta paper, only to be told: "Oh jings! I was just trying to be nice!"

Luckily for Paul a vacancy cropped up soon after and in 1997 he began an eight-year stretch on the Edmonton paper.

"That got me out to Kosovo and Afghanistan because the Canadian army set up a superbase near Edmonton about the same time I arrived," Paul explained.

"I went to Kosovo with the last reinforcement flight. Then a couple of years later the Canadians deployed to Kandahar.

"The colonel was quite keen on getting his troops up into the mountains chasing the Taliban. Once that happened everybody wanted to be there, but I don't think the Canadian government was keen on having reporters wandering around. I ended up going over as a guest of the 101st US Airborne Division and they didn't care that I didn't write a word about them. Their attitude was that the Canadians were just as much a part of the taskforce."

Soon after he returned to Canada, Paul heard that 14 Canadian soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan not by Taliban action, but in a "friendly fire" incident when a US jet bombed their position during a training exercise.

Later he returned to Kabul to cover the Afghan elections.

"The soldiers used to joke that I'd be grabbed and end up in a Taliban snuff video, but to be honest, it's more dangerous crossing the street than sitting in an armoured vehicle surrounded by armed men," Paul said.

His military connections led Paul to write his first book, "Scottish Military Disasters", which chronicled ignoble aspects of Scotland's martial past from the Roman defeat of the Picts at Mons Graupius in 84AD, through Flodden and Culloden to the World Wars and concluding with another friendly fire incident in Korea.

While he was waiting for it to be published, Paul took a job as media advisor to the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan, but was made redundant when a new administration was voted in.

He returned to Edmonton and contacted a local book publisher, initially with the idea of doing some editing. However, the publisher was looking for someone to write a book about the Scots in Canada and persuaded Paul to take on the project. Despite his initial reluctance, Paul soon found the subject fascinating.

So closely are the two nations connected that up until World War I Paul reckons the history of Scots-Canadians is basically the history of Canada. In fact, the first Europeans recorded in Canada were probably Scots.

"When they first found Canada, the Vikings decided to put a couple of Scottish guys ashore," Paul explained.

"The idea was that if they were still alive in a couple of days they'd check out this Vinland place. That was the first record of white people in America.

"Up until 1914 the Scots had pretty much the run of the country and a lot of them were actually related."

The more Paul looked into the history of Scots in Canada, the more fascinating stories he uncovered, from the Gaelic-speaking outlaw Lewis-born Donald Morrison who prompted the biggest manhunt in Canadian history, to the many Canadian Highland regiments.

"Every time I went out to Afghanistan there were at least two or three guys with bagpipes," Paul said. "A lot of Canadian regiments have Scottish names and Scottish uniforms. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada are a sight to see. A lot of them are Chinese or Hispanic, but they all wear the kilt."

Because of the contribution Scots made to Canada, he suggests the book can be read as fun primer on Canadian history and not just appeal to the 4.5 million Canadians who identify themselves as having Scots ancestry.

"I hope it will explain to people who are maybe quarter Scottish what it means to be Scottish," Paul said.

Not that Paul believes you even have to have that much or any Scottish blood to consider yourself a Scot-Canadian, as those "New Canadians" of Vancouver's Seaforth Highlanders demonstrate.

"If you want to be Scottish, you are Scottish," Paul said.

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